The Claus clan greets the townsfolk.Photo Credit : Jamie Walter
Sometimes the gifts we remember most come from the simplest of places: the heart. Weston, Vermont, a pretty village with a river flowing through it, has known this for a long time. Weston is famous for having the state’s longest-running professional theater, and it is unlikely that there is more talent seen onstage in a town of this size anywhere in the country. If everyone is home and relatives are visiting, there may be about 600 people residing here. Each day, however, many more make the pilgrimage to the Vermont Country Store, the North Star of Main Street. It’s a cozy nest of nostalgia that’s hard to shake even after leaving, as the entire town center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Until AT&T installed a cell tower recently, townspeople still spoke to the outside world on their landlines. There remain pockets all through town where staring at a phone screen returns only your reflection. And on the first Saturday of December, when Weston greets the yuletide season with a celebration called Christmas in Weston, many are grateful for the respite from technology.
Here, the holiday spirit is distilled to its essence of goodwill, far from the furious pulse of packed malls. Marshmallows roast on sticks over an open fire on the village green. There’s a cookout, and the steady rhythm of draft horses pulling wagons, and a petting farm snugged into a barn, a gingerbread contest, a magic show, caroling, visits to historic museums, a tree lighting. And, of course, Santa.
The morning air is damp, a tad too warm for snow. The parking lot of the Vermont Country Store is sticky with mud. I learn that the dirt surface is intended to maintain the feel of when the store first opened in 1946. Across the street, in a touch of country store rivalry, a sign outside the Weston Village Store proclaims, “Weston’s original country store—since 1891.”
Santa and Mrs. Claus will arrive on a fire truck at 11 a.m., so there is time. I stop at the tidy post office and meet Melvin Twitchell. This is his 33rd year as postmaster in and around southern Vermont, and he’s been in Weston since 2011. Laughing lightly, he tells me that the postman who delivers the mail has a hole in his muffler, and the 200 or so families on his rural route don’t want him to fix it. “They want to know when he’s on his way,” he says. A woman comes in and hands Melvin a brown paper bag. He smiles. Inside sits a pear the size of a softball. “She just came back from California,” he explains. “Merry Christmas,” she calls out as she leaves. “This is my world,” he says.
I stroll to the green, rimmed by its vintage iron fence. A Christmas tree festooned with unlit lights stands inside the gazebo; at dusk, the day will end with townspeople pressing close, expectant. Modest in size, the green is larger than life in town lore. The story goes that this is the nation’s only town common not owned by a town but by a group of nine women, who keep it trim and neat. The green was once part of the homestead of Captain Oliver Farrar, who in 1797 built a tavern here (now a museum), and his heirs left the land to be kept in perpetuity by town trustees, who since 1886 have always been women.
By 9:30 a.m., Jonathan Bliss, pastor of the Old Parish Church, is coaxing flames to life in a fire pit. Every year, he says, Christmas in Weston raises money for a local charity; this year it is Just Neighbors of Vermont, which helps people here and in surrounding communities weather temporary hardships and emergencies. Next year Just Neighbors goes to the bottom of the list, and a new charity arises.
At 10, the first horse-drawn wagon of the day clops by the green, its bells ringing, and turns in to a lane by the Vermont Country Store. Two wagons sponsored by the store will trek by all day (and pedestrians will learn to keep their eyes on the ground along the wagon route).
I climb aboard behind Peter Hudkins’s team. He and his wife own Smokeshire Hilltop Farms, about eight miles out of town. His wagon is pulled by Sarah and Betsy, Suffolk Punch draft horses, a heritage breed with only about 1,500 remaining in the world. They are handsome veterans, aged 19 and 14, and they wait patiently in the cool damp for the wagon to fill. Then they head north along the road to Walker Farm.
Sitting beside me is a young couple from New York. He says he is “in film” and she is an actress. They stumbled upon Christmas in Weston last year, snow fell, and “it felt magical,” he says—so here they are again. They remembered drinking mulled cider and “the best grilled cheese ever” at the Bryant House Restaurant.
After we return, Santa arrives on a blaring fire engine. He dismounts and, accompanied by Mrs. Claus, threads his way past waiting families inside the Vermont Country Store, where he settles into a deep, cozy chair. A young blond woman is first in line. She has come from Massachusetts with her three children, who range from 10 months to 5 years old. The two oldest climb onto Santa’s lap. “Oh, you have the devil in your eyes,” Santa says to one. “You wish real, real hard, and I’ll try and get my elves working.”
The Clauses, who live 20 miles east of Weston, have two children and two grandchildren of their own. Santa’s beard is real, as is his ease and warmth with kids, and he has been doing this for 40 years. For several hours they listen and smile, and as each child climbs off Santa’s lap, Mrs. Claus hands down a candy cane. I ask how he knows how to respond when an all-trusting child asks for a gift. “I never promise,” Santa says. “But I watch the parents to see.”
The store’s front-door bell rings all day long, as it has for decades. What Vrest Orton and his wife, Mildred, created here was an idiosyncratic and whimsical shopping experience. They understood the powerful tug of memory, the appeal of nostalgia to our imagination, and they packaged that experience not only on store shelves but also in catalogs that found their way around the world. Hang out for a few moments by the glass jars full of penny candy, and you’ll hear, as I did, someone describe a jolt of memory brought on by seeing striped gum and candy straws, how suddenly 45 years have melted away and he’s a child again.
With the afternoon winding down, I walk to the Church on the Hill for carol singing. It is known as “the music church.” A woman named Pat Connelly leads the singing while playing guitar. Her voice is easy to listen to, and songs fill the room. “I can hear your spirits in your voices,” she says. I see the young couple from New York joining in.
At dusk, seemingly everyone in Weston is gathered around the gazebo. Santa and his missus walk by. The tree blazes to life, a shared amen on the day.
As I drive away, I think of when I stopped earlier at the Mill Museum and chatted with Bob Brandt, president of the Weston Historical Society. “I am a historian of a town where nothing ever happened,” he told me. Nothing but songs in a church, smoke rising from fire pits, a store with bells, children nestled in their parents’ arms. I take his words as a promise.Christmas in Weston takes place this year on Saturday, December 7, 2019. Learn more here.